From Little Rock Free Press, May 1 - 31, 2003

or The Muse at War

By Warren Criswell

 As an artist, I liked it better when we thought war was a force of nature. Like hurricanes and tornados. Plato wrote, "Only the dead have seen the end of war." Meaning that it's just part of the human condition, as natural as death. Deal with it.

That was before the Internet. Global communications--access to news sources other than those of one's own country--reveal that wars, unlike tornados, are started

Self-Portrait, Dead, 4/7/03

by somebody, usually for reasons other than those publicly stated. We know too much now to accept the mass murder--excuse me, "collateral damage"--in our name of thousands of civilians as a sad but inevitable result of living in an imperfect world. We know too much now about the particulars of wars to generalize them in art. The concept "War" can't be used any longer to excuse those who start one.

Of course we knew better, unless we were totally naïve. But it used to be a generation or more before we knew what really happened, too late for us to take any personal blame for it. Now there is an unsettling transparency to current events.

We can compare what's being reported by us to what's being reported about us. Now we have--to give just one example--The Internet Public Library (, carrying links to online newspapers all over the world. Using search engines, we can find documented reports on just about anything.  We are no longer dependent on CNN and the other networks--which are "worshipful of power," as Chomsky puts it, especially now with government "minders" watching for unpatriotic deviations from the official spin. Even on American television it's possible to watch news programs from around the world, via Newsworld International out of Canada, translated into English. The scenes of carnage caused by our bombing in Baghdad--the burned and maimed survivors, people searching desperately for family members, a dead child pulled from the rubble--was truly disturbing, but what was even more disturbing was comparing these scenes to the sanitized version of the war shown by our own networks.

The shelling by an American tank on April 8 of foreign and "unembedded" journalists in Baghdad's Palestine Hotel and a missile attack on Al Jazeera's offices the same day shows how desperate the government must have been to suppress these alternate versions of the war. "Three journalists were killed and several were injured in an operation observers consider as a blatant attempt to impede the freedom of the press and to control information disseminated to the world," writes Tanya Goudsouzian for Gulf News ( ). CentCom in Qatar said its forces were returning fire in self-defense, but British Sky television's correspondent David Chater said: "I never heard a single shot coming from any of the area around here, certainly not from the hotel." Evidently it didn't occur to CentCom that somebody in a hotel full of cameramen might be videotaping the whole thing.

Of course, having these outside sources doesn't mean that all of us use them. Evidently few of us do, if the polls are accurate. At the start of the war Noam Chomsky said, "In the last few months there has been a spectacular achievement of government-media propaganda … Since September 2002, the United States is the only country in the world where 60 per cent of the population believes that Iraq is an imminent threat--something that people do not believe even in Kuwait or Iran…. Furthermore, about 50 per cent of the population now believes that Iraq was responsible for the attack on the World Trade Center." ("Iraq is a Trial Run," Chomsky interviewed by VK Ramachandran on Frontline India, April 2, 2003.) Even with the Internet, and in the face of overwhelming evidence to contrary (even in our own media!), a lot of us evidently still chose to believe our leaders.

For instance, most people still seem to think our invasion of Afghanistan was our first blow in the War on Terrorism. Never mind that the WTC terrorists were members of Al Qaeda, and were from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Also, forget about the Taliban's offer to turn over Osama bin Laden if we would show them the proof. It's not important either that the chaos caused by our bombing raids allowed bin Laden ("dead or alive") and Taliban leader Mullah Omar to escape, or that the army, on orders "from the top," allowed many Taliban to be airlifted to Pakistan. The main thing is … What was that main thing again?… Oh yeah, the War on Terrorism!

The invasion had nothing to do with an off-and-on plan since 1993 to build a million-barrel-per-day pipeline from refineries in Turkmenistan on the Caspian Sea, site of huge untapped reserves of oil and natural gas, through Afghanistan to Pakistan's Arabian Sea coast. And there's nothing incriminating in the fact that so many familiar names from the corporate-political world--like Alexander Haig, James Baker, Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice, George Bush, Hamid Kharzi, Unocal, Enron, British Petroleum, Halliburton, the Carlyle Group, etc.--are allegedly connected to these deliberations. It couldn't possibly be, as Ted Rall writes in his book Gas War (2002), that "in all likelihood a president of the United States invaded a sovereign state for one cynical reason: to create a puppet state that might, with luck, serve as a conduit for oil to power sports utility vehicles across American highways." And it's pure coincidence that the current plan, as reported by Unocal, for a trans-Afghanistan gas pipeline "was conceived concurrently to a bombing campaign that killed at least three thousand five hundred Afghan civilians." Besides, if that was the reason, how come they're not building the thing now? So what if the Taliban are coming back, threatening our puppet government, which controls only Kabul, and the country is just as unstable and pipeline-unfriendly as it was before we invaded it, suggesting that our hawks are as inept as they are corrupt? Try not to think about those things.

It's pointless, evidently, to go though the evidence for similar (but even more crudely transparent) trumped up reasons for the campaign against Iraq. Every single fabrication was exposed and shrugged off. "If our information was wrong," said Powell to Peter Jennings, "fine." In this part of the Perpetual War, with the help of the liberated Iraqi people who, as Rumsfeld says, are now free to commit crimes--we have successfully eliminated those hotbeds of terrorism, the Iraqi national museum, library and zoo. True, we haven't found those pesky WMDs yet, but we suspect Saddam has taken them to Syria in the back of his van. Anyway, the real reason for the war was to liberate the Iraqi people, right? OK, so we had to kill several thousand of them to do it, but to quote Saddam's old friend Rummy again, "Freedom's untidy."

In a characteristically well-crafted press statement calculated to reassure the American people, Bush stammered recently, "It'll take time to restore chaos." To this end we're hiring back Saddam's torturers, complete with their green uniforms, as policemen. We've also shipped in our interim ruler, retired Lt. General Jay Garner, a former weapons manufacturer and "Star Wars" advocate, and the next step is to install a new permanent puppet. Rummy's choice is fellow hawk Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, who hasn't been in Iraq since 1956 and who has been convicted of 31 counts of bank fraud in a Jordanian court. He'll have to appear to have been freely chosen by the people, like Hamid Kharzi was. Meanwhile, the administration has awarded Bechtel (look up those board members) a $34 to $680 million contract to rebuild what we destroyed, no help from the UN required, thank you very much. All this of course will go through without a hitch, just like in Afghanistan. . . . .

If you have a problem with this, Richard Perle (Dubya's Rasputin, a k a Prince of Darkness, chairman of the Defense Policy Board until his self-demotion to board member to avoid a threatened investigation into his dealings with WorldCom) has a two-word message for you: "You're next."

I'm just saying it was easier when we didn't know the truth--while it was happening! If war is not a force of nature but the result of merciless greed and lust for power by a few actual people, whose names and faces we know, people who claim to have been elected by us (yeah, right), people who claim to be committing their crimes in our name, right now--then it becomes personal. It's hard for me to objectify a crime attributed to me. Like the civilians of Hitler's Germany, I am automatically guilty. There is maybe one small point in our favor: Hitler was legitimately elected.

I was always able to rise above particulars in my work. Yes, a lot of my stuff is personal. Talking about Goethe's Faust, M. Owen Lee said, "It is the story of his life told in symbols." I've always thought of my own work sort of like that. I hoped that the symbols transcended my own life and attained some kind of generality. In this way I could use my art like a deus ex machina to elevate me above personal blame, above the ugly corporate-political-military details of the world. But now, with the knowledge that George W. Bush and his gang of Pax Americana handlers--or as William Pitt of calls them, "a mob of hyperactive right-wing extremists with an army to play with and a dream of global dominance glowing like coals in their eyes"--are killing innocent people for personal gain, and blaming me for it!-- I'm having a really hard time getting back to work as usual.

I've never liked political art because of its transient nature. It rarely achieves the universality of, for instance, Goya's The Third of May or Picasso's Guernica.

But my steady muse, who has always inspired me with the timeless beauty of surfaces -- who took such delight in seducing me in dark rooms or ambushing me on rainy highways -- seems to be missing in action, replaced by some outraged bitch suffering from vaginal dryness. It's not just me. Other artists I've talked to also feel like they're in some strange suspended state of transition. In the shock and awe of global war, art itself begins to seem absurd.

They say the truth will set you free. Yes, but it can also fuck you up.

Driveway III (Liberated), 4/6/03, the latest in a series of paintings of the artist's home


 Copyright 2003 Little Rock Free Press
Little Rock Free Press, Vol. 11, Issue 2, May 1 - 31, 2003

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